Archive for February, 2011

Inside (A l’interieur)

Posted in extreme cinema, french cinema with tags , , , , , , , on Thursday, 24 February, 2011 by Ed

Inside is one of the most brutal and harrowing horror thrillers ever produced. It is a film of such intensity that after first viewing I was physically exhausted and mentally drained. Even after repeat viewings this fabulous example of the French New Wave of extreme cinema is still one of my favourite ever films.

Swapping between shots of a car crash taking place and in utero footage of the impact on an unborn foetus, the basis of Inside is established in its opening sequence. The heavily pregnant Sarah, played by Alysson Paradis, survives the accident but her husband is killed. Right from the very beginning it is clear that that the visual horror during the film is going to be powerful – the blood and wounds sustained by both Sarah and her husband are graphic and realistic, the screen is drenched in blood and the film has barely started.

The story jumps to four months later, it is Christmas Eve and Sarah’s baby, having survived the crash, is due to be induced on Christmas Day. Sarah leaves the hospital having had a scan, and after making arrangements with her boss (who she is clearly very close to) to pick her up in the morning she returns to her impressive home in the Paris suburbs. From here the film quickly becomes sinister and then descends into a relentless bloody horror. Before discussing the latter horror, the former chilling build-up is an often over looked aspect of this film and, relatively brief as it is, it contains what could be considered to be one of horrors most chilling moments.

It is understandable that the epic pace and deranged brutality of the second half of Inside is the most discussed aspect of this work, but the scenes where the female intruder (known only in the credits as La Femme) arrives at Sarah’s home and ultimately enters it are masterpieces of almost Hitchcockian terror. They are chilling – and the sense of doom that the goddess of French alternative cinema, Beatrice Dalle, brings to the character of La Femme is as disturbing as any of the violent horrors seen later in the piece.  

When the doorbell rings, Sarah is cautious and does not open it. The female voice on the other side of the door requests the use of her phone, claiming her car has broken down. Sarah refuses, and lies that her husband is asleep and she doesn’t want to disturb him. The voice at the door corrects her “your husband is not asleep, he’s dead”. Panic sets in and Sarah calls the police. The dark figure of a woman appears at the rear windows, staring in – motionless. Sarah flashes off photo after photo, highlighting the figure in white light and capturing her face. The police arrive and search the grounds, they give the all clear and agree to check in on Sarah later in the evening.

Sarah sleeps restlessly in her couch, and in a moment of sheer terror that elicited raised hairs on crawling skin, the white face of La Femme fades in and out of the darkened doorway behind her. She is in the house! This sequence, as mentioned previously, should be regarded as one of the genres finest. It was thrillingly understated – reminiscent of The Shape appearing from the shadows in Halloween and was more terrifying than the girl coming out of the television in Ringu. The sense of dread that it creates is palpable, and it proved that the viewer is in the hands of film-makers who can terrorise with a light touch as well as a heavy hand.

Sarah retires to her bed, unaware of the intruder in her home – and her next waking moment is La Femme plunging scissors into her pregnant naval, recoiling in shock and pain she has her face viciously slashed. Lest we forget the opening car crash scenes, we are reminded that the gore and violence in this movie will be graphic and lingering – the viewer is not going to be spared, if this cinematic ride is chosen it will have to be lived through. Sarah scrambles into her bathroom, locking herself in. The film from this point is an almost unbroken sequence of violence, mutilation and viscous murders.

Dalle delivers a typically powerful performance. Her body movements and mannerisms reinforce the maniacal evil that her character represents. She’s almost like a demon emitting hate, or a robot incapable of any kind of deviation from her terrible intent. La Femme is clearly mad, Dalle demonstrates that with fits of stamping and fist banging. Not only is she mad, but she’s frustrated and irate – almost indignant at Sarah’s attempts to protect herself.

La Femme fully intends to get at Sarah, but she’s locked in the bathroom. A bloody and exciting “cat and mouse” game is played out – the threat is unending, but during the course of the evening La Femme is interrupted by various characters that she either needs to try to get rid of without attracting attention or, if that is unsuccessful, brutally murder.

The fear La Femme elicits is greater than the sum of all the franchise “Slashers” put together – Freddy and Jason wouldn’t stand a chance. As brilliant as the direction and visual effects used in this film are – it would be significantly poorer if Dalle had not been cast as the antagonist. Dalle is enigmatic in that her allure is difficult to define, but she always brings a powerful presence to the screen and here she channels it as pure deranged evil that is beautiful and repulsive in equal measures.

Inside is another example of the often overlooked importance of a powerful score in genre films. Here it is perfectly arranged and used in an extremely effective manner to bolster fear and tension. It is not surprising to note that the Music Editor for this production also worked on Haute Tension.

Before the film’s final, blood drenched scene – which is hard not watch open-mouthed, if indeed one can stomach it – we are exposed to hands being stabbed to walls, eyes burst with spikes, groins repeatedly stabbed with knives and heads blown in half. These and other transgressive treats are burnt into our consciousness by directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury during the 80 minutes that it takes for Inside to play out.

Despite all of the truly ferocious violence experienced during this film, there is still a sense that our worst fear for what La Femme wants to do to Sarah will not happen – or that if it does it will not be shown in detail. Perhaps this is because it is too despicable to contemplate, challenging every instinct of what it is to be human.  Inside needs to be experienced to fully understand its power, and the finale should be embarked upon without too much being spoiled in the way of details.

As the end credits roll, the true impact of the sum of this films parts are felt. Few films have left me breathless and worn out from the physical effects of stress and adrenalin, but Inside did. It temporarily degenerates the mind, but as this subsides the thrill of the film can be properly enjoyed and appreciated.

This movie doesn’t leave you for a long time; a part of one’s brain will forever be tattooed with the violence and insanity of La Femme. Allow yourself to be immersed in this film, watch it in the dark, and see if it doesn’t just do the same to you.

Frontiers

Posted in extreme cinema, french cinema with tags , , , , , , , on Monday, 21 February, 2011 by Ed

Frontiers opens to give us a vision of France set in the immediate future amidst rioting and chaos in the build up to, and subsequent election of, an extreme right-wing political party. The story begins to focus on a group of young adults who get split up in the turmoil of the urban landscape. Following a gun fight with the police in which one of their number is shot, they decide to reconvene in the countryside. That’s all you need to know about the build up to Frontiers, it provides an atmospheric backdrop, but ultimately the crux of the film is about the group landing themselves as captives to a family of fascist cannibals!

Of course, the group fleeing the city are variously imprisoned on the family’s estate which consist of an abattoir, disused mine and various farm buildings. One by one they meet their demise until the final showdown.

Frontiers gradually introduces a cast of antagonists within a hierarchical family of Nazi’s with a predilection for human flesh. This point is never pushed too far, the family view their victims as nothing more than the swine they also keep –they are not slavering savages, and the understatement and normality of the cannibalism serves to make it all the more deranged.

It would be unduly critical to worry too much about Frontiers being a French New Wave rip-off of Texas Chainsaw Massacre – it doesn’t matter particularly because it is done very well. Perhaps calling it an homage is more appropriate as it’s not a carbon copy, it just has very similar elements to the 70’s classic. It stands alone just fine and lack of innovation does not necessarily make a film poor – indeed this is a good, solid horror film. Frontiers is well acted and plays out within a depressingly bleak farm complex of filthy outhouses and abattoirs. Empathy with the victims is competently achieved and, vitally for a film like this, it is hard not to wish the worst kind of vengeance on the tormentors.

Most importantly however, Frontiers delivers on the gore and violence. Let’s not be coy, anyone wilfully deciding to watch a film about people being held captive by cannibal fascists is going to be let down by timidity on the directors behalf! Xavier Gens does not disappoint, the violence is graphic and visceral but it happens for a reason and to progress the film, rather than being a collection of set-pieces. Despite featuring people being steamed alive and obliterated with circular saws, everything feels very proportionate within the scenario the viewer is immersed in. We have violence to cringe at and violence to cheer – it’s very satisfying and does not become overwhelming.

What elevates Frontiers above other films of this ilk is the pace in which it races to its conclusion. Once the sprint for the finish begins, this film really lets rip and assaults the senses not just visually but in the tension and excitement it generates. Hope, despair, elation, vengeance, anger, fear – the audience is immersed in all of this amidst a setting of mud, blood and violence.

Does the story end well for our main protagonist? The film is not left hanging open, and it does have a sense of completion, but despite reaching safety of a sort – it is not clear if the survivor truly has found salvation. What price security over freedom?

The Loved Ones

Posted in australian cinema, extreme cinema with tags , , , , , , , on Friday, 18 February, 2011 by Ed

The Loved Ones is a beautifully crafted and well paced story that perfectly juxtaposes a coming-of-age story with the nightmare world of two deranged sadists – a father and his daughter. It is an Australian film, and whilst there aren’t that many antipodean horror films that spring immediately to mind, the ones that do (such as Wolf Creek) have all been very good. The Loved Ones can be added to this stable.

The film centres on Brent, a young man who is likable yet slightly dysfunctional due to the loss of his father in a car crash where Brent was the driver. His strained relationship with his now understandably protective mother comes to a head when he intends to defy her desire to keep him out of a car driven by his girlfriend to the school dance. Brent releases his inner demons in a cocktail of rock climbing and marijuana (yes, really!) and from here his world gets surreal and nasty.

It might be because stereotypes are different in Australia, but it was very impressive to watch a film with characters such as a troubled teen, an overbearing mother, a local policeman and a level-headed girlfriend without feeling like the same old caricatures were being forced upon the viewer. Often character development is achieved at the expense of excitement, but there is an excellent pace to The Loved Ones, and this is achieved using interesting back story and a well timed plot progression. There really are no massive suspensions of disbelief asked of the audience and the plot and subplots are woven together in a wonderfully natural way. One minute you are enjoying a view into someone’s life in a small Australian community, the next we are privy to a scenario that is unsettling, bizarre and deeply unpleasant.

Brent politely refuses an invitation to the school dance from a class-mate Lola (or “Princess” as her father refers to her in the film) as he is going with his girlfriend. This leads to him being drugged and abducted by the girl’s father. Brent awakens to find himself bound to a chair in the demented setting of a mock-up prom in the home of Princess and her Daddy, complete with mirror ball and party accessories! It soon becomes clear that this is not the first time the pair has done this, and the mother of the family is brought to the table, dazed and docile bearing the scar on her forehead of a past trepanning.

In lesser hands the film would then descend into relatively meaningless torture sequences, but this is not the case here, and whilst it does have many skilfully crafted scenes of horror and tension it is interspersed with cut scenes elsewhere that are genuinely very funny and would be high points of a comedy film. These are brief though and serve as contrast when the story returns to Brent and his plight, in no way lessening the films impact as a pure horror film.

The mood is darkened by some deeply unpleasant undertones. Princess and Daddy are clearly either psychotic and sadistic and are therefore capable of anything; she expects to get what she wants on what she perceives to be her “special night” and he wants to be the doting father who makes it perfect for her by any means possible. As the precocious mood of Princess swings in an ever-more vicious manner towards Brent there is a feeling of unpredictability which creates a powerful tension. There is a feeling that almost anything could happen, coupled with not knowing what it could be, making Brent’s plight a strong vicarious experience.  

Gore fans will not be disappointed, but those who aren’t should not be put off – this is no schlock film. A lot of what makes the film’s more intense scenes uncomfortable is a psychological assault combined with a visual one. For example, there is a head drilling scene which is almost unbearable, but I don’t believe the drill bit is shown entering the skull once, the sound and the implied image are excruciating though! The real horror lies in the acceptance by the perpetrators in what they are doing as normality, or at the very least wholly justified. In a moment reminiscent of the Grandfather in Texas Chainsaw Massacre who is too weak to bludgeon the captive girl, Princess is unable to complete a section of a torturous procedure designed to sedate Brent, and botches and delays it forcing Daddy to take over – the stoppage and anticipation is agonising.

The interaction between Princess and Daddy is what really shines in this film. So often there is a killer, monster or other antagonist to be overcome in horror cinema – but in The Loved Ones it is the destructive relationship between this father and daughter that is to be feared. There are no scenes of incest between the two but it is subtly hinted at in a manner that makes it more repulsive than if it were shown. Princess knowingly undresses and changes into her prom dress in front of Daddy – who stands and watches her, transfixed. Their whole existence is unpleasant and disturbing, it is clear that anything which intrudes upon their fantasy world will be dealt with – and for someone to be at their mercy is a horror to observe.

The narrative of The Loved Ones is beautifully tied up, all the threads and character arcs come together in very satisfying manner. Nothing is surplus to the story, yet there are many layers that enrich it. This standard of film-making is fast becoming a hallmark of Australian horror, it combines high production values with craftsman-like storytelling and characters which have a depth that generates vital empathy – it’s not afraid of brutal horror either, and I for one hope that this standard continues.

Switch (Short Film)

Posted in Short film with tags , , , on Tuesday, 15 February, 2011 by Ed

I saw Switch at last Summer’s FrightFest in Leicester Square, London. It is one of those works of horror cinema which, brief as it is, renews your hope in the future of the genre. It is guerrilla film-making in the spirit of the 1970’s, the mantle of Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter et al has been taken up.

 I’m a big fan of the “short” format for horror generally, it’s fun to see what talented (often up-and-coming) directors can do in 5 to 15 minutes of screen time. As the viewer, you know that you are going to get to the pay-off quickly, it’s the shot of tequila to the feature length pint of beer. As such, this review will contain more spoilers than are usual on Transgressive Cinema (and it will also be short!). Spoilers shouldn’t be a problem, Switch is doing the festival circuit and should be available online soon so there is plenty of opportunity to see it.

 Melanie Light takes the helm of Switch in her directorial debut, graduating as she does from previous roles such as Artistic Director and Production Designer in other projects. This artistic background shows in the composition of Switch, from the perspectives and shots used to the incorporation of the snow-hit UK to the benefit of the film. The decision to hurriedly shoot (and I believe re-shoot) to capitalise on the snowy landscape was as bold as it was effective. Blood on snow looks great, it was a good call! It also lends an insular feel to the film which greatly aided the necessarily rapid creation of atmosphere in the limited screen time available.

The most refreshing thing for me about Switch was that it was the genuine grassroots horror that I have a great affection for. It didn’t play for laughs or wink self-referentially, but it was clever without trying too hard. Perhaps “clever” is the wrong word, it was sly.

 The opening moments set the scene with a female jogger attracting the attention of a passing motorist who, it becomes clear to us, is an opportunist murderer – perhaps worse. Our predator follows her into some snow-filled woodland, where the jogger is set-up as the standard female victim that Hollywood and mainstream-horror has slaughtered a thousand times over. Clearly exasperated, the killer loses the trail of his prey only to find out suddenly and brutally that he is on the receiving end of one of the best reversals of fortune since I Spit On Your Grave (the original – or that wouldn’t be very long!).

 Switch looks bleak, and it feels bleak – at first. I think it works so well because both the landscape and the premise we think we are going to see play out is depressing. The conclusion is, despite its violence, wonderfully uplifting! As the crimson blood colours the drab of the winter forest, the viewer’s despondency ebbs away – cheering on the heroine and rejoicing in being spared another formulaic murder by set piece. As we do, we ask ourselves unanswered questions as to the motives and back-story of this woman.

As previously mentioned, short films are a quick shot of celluloid enjoyment – it is difficult to read too much into them, they cannot have the depth of a feature. However, they are excellent at showcasing new talent and with Melanie Light’s artistic vision and obvious love of the genre, I do hope that her full-length debut is not too far away.